When I took the General Ordination Exams, there was a particular question that I found to be quite relevant, for in my experience, it gets asked a lot. The question went something like this. “When asked, a member of your church replied, “The trinity? For me that means the Father, incomprehensible, the Son, incomprehensible, the whole thing, incomprehensible. I think it is just something the theologians made up to confuse us. How can it possibly have any bearing on my daily life?” Does that resonate with anyone? I thought that it might.
The trinity is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp as it is unlike anything else we experience on earth. The idea of one God in three persons, separate but united, is challenging to understand and to explain. It is no wonder that people feel the church has not done a good job in helping to develop a greater understanding of our triune God.
I find that most people in the church have no trouble with the idea of God the Father as creator of all. We start with Genesis and the beginning of the creation story. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. Here we have God the Father creating the universe and establishing everything in our reality. This is the first part of the trinity; God the Father who is the creator of all. The picture of a benevolent God who loves us and created the heavens and the earth resonates with people, especially the paternalistic part. Everyone understands the concept of a father (even if they do not have one) and it is fairly easy for people of faith to develop a picture in their mind of God in that way. Describing God as Father allows people to anthropomorphize God and some people tell me they imagine God the Father looking a lot like Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, or for the younger folks, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
Jesus the Son is also an understandable concept as his coming to earth as one of us, dying for us, and being resurrected is the cornerstone of our common faith. God the Son took on our mortal form; lived and laughed and cried as we do, and knew what it was like to be one of us from a very personal and intimate perspective. It is not a stretch for people to develop an idea of Jesus as he clearly took mortal form and walked the earth. As it says in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it”. The light of the world, the Word that was with God and in fact was God is Jesus. Jesus was with God at the creation of the world and the light that broke the darkness was Jesus. The same Jesus who came to earth on Christmas in the most humble manner was with God in the beginning and has always been the light of the world.
Returning to Genesis, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. The Hebrew word for wind is Ruach, which translates to Spirit. The Spirit of God, part of God yet separate from God; and with God the Father and Jesus the Son at the very beginning. If people can develop a picture of God the Father and God the Son in more or less human form, the Holy Spirit is more difficult as it has no form. Without that frame of reference, it can be hard to grasp the concept of a living Spirit that surrounds us, lives within us, and can inform all that we do.
But it is this uniqueness of the Spirit which I believe gives it reverence, and is a tangible reminder that we cannot ever reduce God to the status of being simply one of us. I have found that we sometimes try to put God in a box; a box that we can open and close when we want to. If we can understand God by making him just like us, we can put him into that box and in that way we are in control. We control when we want to experience God and when we don’t. We can pull the box out on Sunday morning and have our nice experience of God, and put him back in the box when it isn’t convenient for us. When we want to experience the darkness; when we are doing things that we know are not what God wants. When we are petty, or cruel or self-indulgent, it is infinitely easier to rationalize these behaviors if we have trapped God in that box so He can’t see us.
But the Holy Spirit makes that difficult. If we can’t picture the Holy Spirit like one of us, we can’t put it into that box. How do you trap a force that surrounds us, moves among us, and in fact is part of our very being?
And then we have Mark’s Gospel; the story of Jesus’ baptism. “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Here we see the three aspects of the trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit each demonstrating their uniqueness, yet acting together in concert to fulfill God’s plan on earth.
For just as Jesus received the Holy Spirit that day in the Jordan, so did each of us when we were baptized. Just as Paul baptized the people at Ephesus, each of us received the Holy Spirit in our own baptism. That makes it impossible for us to hide from God, no matter how much we may want to. And it reminds us that our conception of God and Jesus as merely people like us is fundamentally wrong. We cannot equate ourselves with God and we cannot reduce God simply to the level of one of us. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are more than we can comprehend and they cannot be reduced or diminished by us.
That is the message of the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism. God in all forms is acting in the world, not for Jesus, but for us. God the Father didn’t need to speak out loud to Jesus, but instead chose to speak so that WE would hear him. Jesus already has the Holy Spirit, but it comes from heaven to him as a visible sign for US. God in all forms is acting in the world to remind us of his power and his willingness to love us with all that He is. So much so that he came to earth as one of us to die for our sins.
Looked at from this perspective, the Trinity becomes a bit easier to understand. Each aspect of God is unique, yet they work together and each is a gift to us. While it may be tempting to call it a merely a theological construction, the Trinity is very real. It was then, is now and will always be; and is a wonderful gift to us all.